11 years ago, on the site longbets.org, a friendly wager was made between two mavens of the web: Jeremy Keith and Matthew Haughey.
The bet, to be revisited a decade and a year later, would be whether the URL of their wager at Long Bets would survive to a point in the semi-distant future.
That is, this day, February 22nd, 2022, (2/22/2022).
As of this writing, the URL absolutely has survived.
Therefore, the Internet Archive shall receive a $1,000 donation from Mr. Keith and Mr. Haughey ($500 apiece), provided from an escrow account that has held the funds since the day of the wager. (We shout out to the Bletchly Park Trust, a worthwhile historical organization, who will not be getting the donation but who are deserving of yours.)
It would be easy enough to declare it a win for the idea of “the web” and that regardless of concerns brought up about the Internet’s ongoing issues, we can still find hope. So certainly, let us all applaud that things worked this way, and the URL’s 11-year consistency is a bright beam of light, online.
In many ways, however, the bet is at best a bittersweet victory, and at its darkest interpretation, a small oasis in a desert.
To understand The Long Bets, you need to understand The Long Now.
The Long Now Foundation is a non-profit meant to be an organization geared towards projects and approaches to thinking that chronologically leave the average human lifespan in the dust; focusing on 10,000-year timelines and solutions to problems of sustaining cultural contexts for a hundred lifetimes and beyond.
Currently, the Long Now and its ideals are expressed in both a very nice performance and drinking space called The Interval, and a number of stylish projects and websites to bring this realm of thinking into focus.
The most prominent and first major project was the Clock of the Long Now, a project to make a time-accurate clock that would function for 10,000 years. The as-yet incomplete project goal is to build a clock deep in a mountain range and set it off, ticking occasionally (but on time, doing so) for the next ten millennia.
Other projects follow this approach as well, ranging from delicious to provoking. A re-imagining of the Rosetta Stone, a language translation service, a manual for civilization, a mountain land purchase, and others in these themes.
Among these variant projects is Long Bets.
It is a facilitation of long-term thinking, of providing a neutral, fair and equitable way for years-in-the-future bets to be made between parties, each contributing funds towards the prize. It is traditional that the recipient of the prizes be organizations not run or controlled by either bettor.
Browsing the betting page, the bets range from the humorous to the aspirational, from specific sports outcomes to predictions around space travel, vehicle autonomy and economics. They’re a joyride of thought and conversation starters, as they’re meant to be.
And among them is Bet #601.
Jeremy Keith and Matt Haughey are both veterans of The Web as it has historically been described; each has had their voices heard to crowds online and off, describing the nature of websites. Their careers have (deservedly) benefitted greatly from the power of interlinked websites.
They both recall the start of the world wide web, as well as internalizing the rules and mores that followed its birth. They were well-qualified to debate on the longevity of URLs and the position that a specific URL would hold across time.
That said, Keith was skeptical. Haughey was optimistic.
Like a lot of its neighbors, Bet #601 is too clever by half; the bet states that it is won or lost depending on the availability of the bet at the URL the bet is hosted at. That is, two situations exist to judge the outcome: Either the URL https://longbets.org/601 exists, at which point the bet is lost, or it does not exist, at which point the bet is won.
(Strikingly, if the bet had been won, the Internet Archive would possibly be the only place to browse the site in its original form, where it would have then helped prove the funds should go to Bletchly Park Trust. The continued reliance on the Wayback Machine as the vault of the Web’s lost memories would have persisted, in a very sharp and slightly less financially-beneficial way. Such is the price of memory.)
For the record, here are the statements made by each bettor about their arguments for the wager:
“Cool URIs don’t change” wrote Tim Berners-Lee in 01999, but link rot is the entropy of the web. The probability of a web document surviving in its original location decreases greatly over time. I suspect that even a relatively short time period (eleven years) is too long for a resource to survive. I would love to be proven wrong.
Matthew Haughey: Though much of the web is ephemeral in nature, now that we have surpassed the 20 year mark since the web was created and gone through several booms and busts, technology and strategies have matured to the point where keeping a site going with a stable URI system is within reach of anyone with moderate technological knowledge. My oldest sites are going on 13 years old at the time of this bet and the original URL scheme still functions via 301 redirects to a final format we selected about six years ago.
This should be it.
But it’s worth noting how the context of this bet has changed over time. And issues with the continued evolution of the web strike at heart of the point the bet was trying to make.
The Long Now Foundation, intending to maintain its footing for as long as absolutely possible, has a very vested interest in its URLs staying stable. Between hosting structure, the setup of the webpages themselves, and maintaining clean, static URLs (longbets.org/601 is a very simple address, lacking any ornamentation or dependence on programming language extensions or dynamic rendering). The domain name longbets.org is registered until June of 2022 as of this writing, but was registered in June of 2001, twenty years ago, which bodes well for continued survival.
If you’re going to bet that a URL is going to stick around, on a website run by an organization that expresses its character by the longevity of its projects, staking your bet on a specific URL from that organization is a pretty safe bet.
Both of the parties in the bet clearly think of “the web” as being a set of interacting links between websites, but even by 2011, the idea of a “website” was beginning to experience direct collision with the ever-centralizing, ever-shifting audience of online life. Mobile access is a quirk in the 1990s, an oddity growing into a majority in the 2000s, and now, in the present day, phones with screens are the “home computer” of vast percentages of internet patrons.
In the interconnection of the world, it is harder and harder to think of a “website” where “platforms” rule the roost. A user is more likely to have an account name, or a public identity, than to ever utter the phrase “http” in their daily activity, or maybe even their year. The clear goal of many firms is to dissolve the consideration of the URI or URL, with many of the previous protocols of the earlier Web forgotten. The question becomes less of “will this URL survive” and more of “will the idea of the URL survive?”
THE IDEA OF LONGEVITY AND CHANGE FOR DIGITAL DATA:
Finally, the overarching fact of the situation is that sites like Long Bets are part of a philosophy of the web that is rapidly shrinking. Points of data and dependable signifiers of content and individuals were once the destination. That’s long changed; they are but stops along the way, flotsam and jetsam that ride in nebulous platforms that dominate online life. While Jeremy Keith and Matt Haughey maintain personal websites, they have rapidly become like homesteads that jut out in the center of towering skyscrapers and apartment blocks. Future generations will think of “the web” as much as they think of “the roads”; intensely interest to a few, below the watermark of consciousness to the rest.
As we move into this even-more-ethereal version of the Web, where objects, materials and locations possess data as much as pages and links we ever did, the Internet Archive will do its best to keep up and grow to match the challenge.
But what a challenge it shall be. Bet on it.